Nuclear Breakthrough Gives AUKUS Huge Boost to Protect Military Secrets | Science | New
Announced in September last year, AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US. The pact involves cooperation in various fields – with an emphasis on military capability – including cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and hypersonic warfare. However, the main objective of AUKUS is for the UK and the US to help supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
This aspect of the AUKUS pact, note physicists Dr. Bernadette Cogswell and Professor Patrick Huber of Virginia Tech in their recent paper, is not without inherent complications.
As the duo explain: “The recent agreement to transfer nuclear reactors and submarine technology from two nuclear-weapon states to a non-nuclear-weapon state highlights an unresolved problem in safeguards. international.”
It is, they said, “how to protect the fuel of a naval reactor when it is on board an operational nuclear submarine”.
In the wrong hands, this fuel — highly enriched uranium — could be used for weapons research, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
To date, only nuclear-weapon states have deployed nuclear-powered submarines, making these proliferation issues moot – but the AUKUS deal changes that.
Methods are needed to enable the international community to ensure that nuclear fuel used to power submarines operated by non-nuclear states remains in the nuclear reactor and is not removed for other purposes.
The researchers added: “Proposals to extend existing safeguard technologies and practices are complicated by the need for international civilian inspectors to access the interior of the submarine and the reactor compartment – which raises concerns national security”.
In their study, Dr Cogswell and Professor Huber developed two ways for inspectors to determine that nuclear fuel had not been removed from a submarine without needing to access the reactor – or, in fact, to penetrate inside the hull of the submarine.
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First, the duo showed that it is possible to use low-energy antineutron measurements to track the amount of spent nuclear fuel remaining in a submarine.
Antineutrinos are emitted from long-lived fission products in nuclear reactors even after they have been shut down, meaning this approach could be used when a submarine is docked in port.
Additionally, analysis of a reaction called “reverse beta decay” – in which an antineutrino electron scatters onto a proton, creating a positron and a neutron – can reveal changes in uranium enrichment levels and whether the nuclear fuel has been diverted to other uses.
The researchers dubbed their approach the “CErium RUthenium Low Energy AntiNeutrino” measurement, or CeRuLEAN, for short.
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The team concluded: “CeRuLEAN-based verification of naval reactors does not incur any significant operational footprint and does not disclose any sensitive reactor design or operation information beyond the core plutonium fission fraction. .
“Most importantly, CeRuLEAN solves the specific problem of eliminating the managed access burden of maintaining naval fuel cycle safeguards for fuel loaded into an actively deployed submarine.
“It does not require any access on board the military submarine by civilian inspectors to verify the declarations of the reactor.
“CeRuLEAN could provide the first cross-technology transfer opportunity for antineutrino detectors, from high-energy physics to non-proliferation monitoring.”
The full results of the study have been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.